PR 01215.047 Tennessee

A. PR 85-031 Kenneth H~ - SSN ~ - Validity of Court Decree Regarding Paternity of Child - Tennessee

DATE: December 6, 1985


Under Tennessee law, a Juvenile Court lacks authority to entertain an action to set aside one of its orders or judgments. Wilson v. Bowman, 622 S.W.2d 58 (1981); Patrick v. Dickson, 526 S.W.2d 449 (1975).

(H~, Kenneth - SSN ~ - RAIV [W~] - to ARC, Progs., Atl., 12/06/85)


In your memorandum you attached two court orders dated February 16, 1978 and May 21, 1981 each signed by Judge Jesse F.~ Juvenile Court, Carter County, Tennessee. The first order found the insured, Kenneth ~, to be the natural father of Crystal ~. The second order determined that Kenneth H~ was not the natural father of Crystal M~. You have specifically asked if the second order dated May 21, 1981 is a valid order and, if so, whether you are required to abide by that decision.

On October 11, 1977, 16-year-old Carolyn M~ gave birth to Crystal G. M~. Carolyn was not married and the name of Crystal's natural father does not appear on Crystal's birth certificate. On February 13, 1978 the Tennessee Department of Human Services and Carolyn M~ as petitioners, and Kenneth H~, as respondent, appeared in the Juvenile Court for Carter County, Tennessee, before Judge Jesse F. R~. The purpose of this proceeding was to establish paternity and to determine the amount of child support. According to the language in the court's order of February 16, 1978, the court considered testimony, the entire record and the plea by the respondent, Kenneth H~, that he is the father of Crystal G. M~. Based upon this evidence, the court determined that Kenneth H~ was the natural father of Crystal. The court further ordered the child take the surname of H~ and that the respondent pay child support in the amount of $10 per week plus court costs.

On May 24, 1979 the State of Tennessee, Department of Human Services, as assignee of Carolyn M~, filed a Petition for Contempt based upon the insured's failure to make child support payments as previously ordered by the Juvenile Court, Judge Jesse F. R~. However, the State of Tennessee subsequently moved to dismiss its petition on grounds H~ was disabled and receiving public assistance and, thus, without means to pay child support. The court granted this motion on March 10, 1980.

On May 21, 1981 this same Judge Jesse R~ signed a third Juvenile Court order in which he determined that Kenneth H~ was not the natural father of Crystal M~. No mention was made of the court's order of February 16, 1978 wherein this same judge determined that Kenneth H~ was the natural father of Crytal M~. According to the language of this latest order, the court's action was precipitated by a petition filed by Kenneth H~. The natural mother, Carolyn ~, contends she knew nothing of this latest proceeding and did not appear. The style of this latest proceeding does not indicate that the State of Tennessee, as assignee of Carolyn M~, was a party to this latest proceeding although the language in the introductory portion of the order states that the proper parties were before the court. Following Judge R~ conviction of sexual misconduct with juveniles and his removal from office, Judge R~ Juvenile Court records were placed in the custody of the Circuit Court clerk. After a search of Judge R~ records, the Circuit Court clerk found nothing to indicate any hearing was actually held prior to the issuance of this May 21, 1981 order. Further, the circuit clerk found nothing to substantiate that this order was ever entered in the Juvenile Court records.

The May 21, 1981 order signed by Judge R~ is contradictory and confusing on its face. Although the introductory language of the order describes Kenneth H~ as the petitioner, another portion of the order states that the matter came on to be heard on Carolyn's allegations that Kenneth H~ was the father of her unborn child. The order further recites that Kenneth H~ came to court ready and willing to marry Carolyn and support the unborn child. Crystal was three and one-half years old when the May 21, 1981 order was signed. According to the order, Carolyn refused his marriage proposal and admitted before Judge R ~ that Kenneth H~ was not the father and that she wanted nothing to do with Kenneth H~ or his proposal of marriage. Carolyn denies making any such statements in court.

The Secretary is required by Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. §405(g)), to make his or her own independent determinations based upon all the evidence. Furthermore, where the Secretary is not a party to state court proceedings, the Secretary is not bound by findings of a state court. Social Security Ruling (SSR) 62-62c, SSR 67-32c. Alger v. Celebrezze, 267 F.Supp. 51 (S.D. Indiana 1965); Cruz v. Gardner, 375 F.2d 453 (7th Cir. 1967). However, where the' issue of paternity has been determined in a contested proceeding in a state court and such determination by the state court is consistent with the law enunciated by the highest court in the state, the Secretary should not ignore the state court's decision. Gray v. Richardson, 474 F.2d 1370 (6th Cir. 1973); Dennis v. Railroad Retirement Board, 585 F.2d 151 (6th ~Cir. 1978).

Under Tennessee law a mother may petition the Juvenile Court for the purpose of establishing the paternity of her child and to compel the father of such child to furnish support for that child. The Juvenile Court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over such paternity and support action. Tenn.Code Ann. ~36-2-103. To establish paternity for purposes of support, the evidentiary standard is that common to civil actions, i.e., a preponderance of evidence. Frazier v. McFerren, 402 S.W.2d 467 (1964); Tennessee Department of Human Services, etc., v. vaughn, 595 S.W.2d 62 (1980). An appeal from any Juvenile Court order or judgment must be taken within 30 days after the entry of such order or judgment to the Court of Appeals. Tenn.Code Ann. §36-2-114. However, the Juvenile Court has no right or authority to set aside one of its final orders or judgments as the Civil Rules of Procedure are not applicable to the Juvenile Court. Wilson v. Bowman, 622 S.W.2d 58 (1981); Patrick v. Dickson, 526 S.W.2d 449 (1975). The Juvenile Court has continuing jurisdiction over matters of support and education and may modify as circumstances warrant any support amount fixed by the original order of paternity until such child is 18 years old. Tenn.Code Ann. §36-2-111. Wilson v. Bowman, supra.

In the present matter, it appears undisputed that the order of paternity dated February 16, 1978 was based upon an evidentiary hearing wherein both the insured and the child's mother testified. The insured admitted he was the child's father, and the testimony of the mother was obviously consistent with that of the insured. There was also other unspecified corroborating evidence considered by the court. Given the admission of paternity by the insured and given the absence of any contradictory evidence, it is the opinion of this office that the "preponderance of evidence" test was satisfied under Tennessee law and that you were justified in considering the state court's paternity finding in the February 16, 1978 order.

The validity of the Juvenile Court order of May 21, 1981 is highly questionable for several reasons. First, the Juvenile Court revised its own paternity determination issued over three years earlier. Since the Civil Rules of Procedure are not applicable to a Juvenile Court in Tennessee, the Juvenile Court lacks authority to set aside one of its own orders or judgments. Wilson v. Bowman, supra; Patrick v. Dickson, supra. Relief from a Juvenile Court order is available specifically by appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals within 30 days after entry. Tenn.Code Ann. S36-2-114. Second, a search of the Juvenile Court record does not reflect that a hearing was ever held prior to the court's issuance of its May 21, 1981 order which is consistent with the allegation of the child's mother that she was never served with any process and was totally unaware of any hearing upon which the May 21, 1981 hearing was purportedly based. More importantly, the May 21, 1981 order was never entered in the Juvenile Court record. The action of a court is not effective for any purpose until a record thereof has been entered upon its minutes. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company v. Taylor Implement & Vehicle Company, 195 S.W. 762 (1917); Sparkle Laundry & Cleaners, Inc., v. Kelton, 595 S.W.2d 88 (1979).

Consequently, it is the opinion of this office that the Juvenile Court order of May 21, 1981 is not a valid order.

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PR 01215.047 - Tennessee - 03/13/2002
Batch run: 11/29/2012